So could North Korea’s cruel regime be next on the hit list?

Published by The Mail on Sunday (9th April, 2017)

When Donald Trump sat down to dinner with China’s Xi Jinping in his garish golden palace of Mar-a-Lago in Florida on Thursday evening, he had just pressed the button on the first major military action of his fledgling presidency.

So as the two superpower leaders chewed over steak, pan-seared sole and the state of the world, 59 Tomahawk cruise missiles hammered down from the skies on to a Syrian air base in retaliation for President Bashar al-Assad’s use of chemical weapons against his own people.

Almost 8,000 miles away in South Korea’s capital Seoul, Hwee-Rhak Park woke to news that Trump had unleashed the might of the US military against Syria’s murderous dictator.

What went through the mind of this former army colonel and respected security analyst must also have dawned on Xi Jinping sitting next to Trump: Could the savage dictatorship of neighbouring North Korea be next in the firing line?

Under the portly Kim Jong-Un – a 33-year-old Swiss-educated thug who took power on the death of his father six years ago – North Korea has ramped up its nuclear weapons programme. Soon its missiles may be able to reach America’s West Coast.

He has also threatened to turn Seoul – a bustling metropolis bigger than London and protected by thousands of American troops – into a ‘sea of fire.’ Little wonder that Park fears for the future.

South Korea may seem a major success story, home to high-tech firms and hordes of fashionable teenagers, but Park predicts it will soon be engulfed into the misery of the world’s most repressive nation. ‘I will be killed or go to a prison camp,’ he said, sitting in his smart grey suit as we talked in his university office overlooking the smog-filled mega-city. ‘It is terrifying.’

North Korea is essentially a fascist state ruled by a repellent dynastic dictatorship, which relies on propaganda against South Korea and its ‘war-mongering’ US ally to justify savagery and poverty. The secretive state also has stockpiles of chemical weapons – and the recent killing of Kim’s half-brother in Malaysia with a banned nerve agent proved it is prepared to do anything, regardless of international norms, to eliminate enemies.

Trump warned last week that the policy of ‘strategic patience’ with this maverick regime was over. ‘If China is not going to solve North Korea, we will,’ he declared bluntly.

Trump pressed Xi to rein in his bellicose ally, which depends on China for almost all its food, trade and energy. And bombing Syria during the Mar-a-Lago summit sent an unambiguous signal: the new President is prepared to use pre-emptive force.

This shows why sober folk such as Park are fearful. ‘We are being held hostage,’ he said. ‘North Korea has about 20 nuclear weapons and if the US failed to destroy them all, they would retaliate with nuclear or chemical weapons.’

He believes Kim – the world’s youngest head of state – seeks to reunite Korea under his thumb through invasion, confident in knowledge the US will not dare respond unless prepared to trigger a nuclear holocaust.

Tensions between the two Koreas, stuck on a strip of land dangling from eastern China, have made this one of the world’s most explosive flashpoints for decades. Now experts fear time is running out to solve the deepening crisis. ‘If they continue to develop nuclear capability and create missiles that can reach the United States, that changes the calculus for us,’ one US diplomatic source told me.

No one knows the exact strength of North Korea’s military machine. But it has held five nuclear weapon tests of increasing power since 2006, while last year alone its youthful leader carried out more ballistic missile firings than his father did in 18 years.

When he assumed power, Kim Jong Un declared his ‘first, second and third’ priorities were to strengthen his armed forces. More recently, he threatened to reduce the US ‘to ashes’ if it fired ‘even a single bullet’ at his state.

US military chiefs believe North Korea made nuclear weapons small enough to fit on missiles two years ago. Earlier this year, experts saw the state had developed solid-fuel technology, which makes missiles easier to hide and launch quickly.

This raises two key questions: why is an impoverished country racing to make such weapons; and what, if anything, can be done to prevent a maverick dictator from getting his hands on a lethal arsenal that imperils the world?

The first question is easier to answer. The regime is founded on fierce control over citizens, determining every aspect of lives from hairstyles to home location. This is backed by ruthless force, torture and forced labour camps holding 120,000 people.

Nuclear weapons and taunting the US offers Pyongyang a sense of self-importance. But are the missiles defensive – protection for an otherwise weak state shoring up a callous regime – or offensive preparation for fresh onslaught on the south?

As for the second question, the simplest solution is for China to stop propping up this hideous regime – yet Beijing, despite growing frustration with the volatile despot, refuses to take tough action.

China supports regional stability, so does not want to provoke a North Korean collapse with millions of desperate refugees pouring over its border – let alone risk retaliation. Nor does it favour a unified Korean powerhouse that supports the West on its flank.

‘This is a game changer for the US but I don’t think China fully gets that,’ said Paul Haenle, a former director for China on the National Security Council under two Presidents. ‘The difference today is this problem has become so much more urgent.’

Trump’s team has warned of taking pre-emptive action if North Korea becomes too threatening. Yet if any weapons of mass destruction remain intact and Kim Jong Un survives an assault, there would be a huge risk of sparking a terrifying conflagration.

‘Israel would have done this a decade ago,’ said one South Korean government source. ‘Trump is all about America First and here is a guy threatening the US with nuclear weapons. I think Trump might just do this. I hope that he does.’

And there is an added layer of complication to this nuclear nightmare.

South Korea is sharply divided over how to respond to its neighbour, with conservatives favouring a hardline stance and the Left preferring dialogue.

A Right-wing government has just fallen, ensnared in scandal. An election next month is expected to see the more liberal Moon Jae-in take over, and he has said he will head straight to Pyongyang to seek talks and stop an American missile defence system. How would the volatile Trump react to this?

Some fear he might withdraw the 30,000 US troops in South Korea in pique, leaving the state even more exposed if the White House then decides to launch air strikes on Kim’s arsenal.

The two halves of Korea have been at uneasy peace for more than six decades – but this is fast becoming the planet’s tinderbox as a global superpower seeks to swat down a nuclear and chemically armed gnat.

Perhaps Trump can achieve a breakthrough. But if these two preening, hot-headed and unpredictable leaders move beyond posturing, they could spark a conflict that dwarfs even Syria’s epic tragedy.

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